August 30, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Her name may not mean much anymore, as Shirley Booth retired from acting in 1974 at the age of seventy-six. When I was a teenager I saw her in two shows, a play and a musical, nearing the tail end of her fifty-year stage career. The first was Look to the Lilies, a musical version of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, with Booth as a nun who enlists the help of an itinerant handyman to build a church in New Mexico. Since it opened and closed quickly, it allowed for Booth to return later in the same season, for what would prove her final time. It was a revival of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, which I am sorry to say, also was a failure. Both shows allowed for only the tiniest glimpses of those qualities that, throughout Booth’s prime years of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, made her one of the most admired actresses on Broadway with audiences and peers alike. Still, I am grateful for the experience.
When Time Magazine published a cover story on her in August, 1953, Booth had recently ended a successful run in Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo on Broadway and was basking in the glory of her recent Oscar win as Lola Delaney in the film version of William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, which on stage solidified Booth’s status as one of the theatre’s great stars. Having made her Broadway debut in 1925, it was a long time coming, even though she appeared in practically a new show every season. The role of the “slatternly” housewife (the word you will always read next to a character description of Lola in almost any review — seriously — check it out), won Booth every conceivable award for the stage production as well as the film. In those days, there were many more awards handed out than just the Tony, and Booth won the Donaldson, the Variety Poll and the New York Drama Critics Awards for Sheba. And for the film, she was the first actress to win Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and repeat at the Oscars. She also received the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review honors as well. To add one more impressive stat, she was the first actress to win a Tony and an Oscar for the same role, something that’s only happened nine times in close to ninety years.
Much of the Time Magazine article concerns itself with how wonderful it is that someone as late in life (translation: as “old” as Booth) was enjoying such success. At the time of her Oscar win, by the narrow standards of Hollywood and its ageism, she was now the second oldest winner of Best Actress since Marie Dressler at the fourth Academy ceremony more than two decades before.
It is stated in the article that Booth was born in 1907 and goes on about how the forty-six-year-old actress managed to survive an abusive father and the devastation of her own first failed marriage with an actor who left her for another woman. It reads like a sob story, not as testimony to her prolific work and skills as an actress. And for whatever reasons, perhaps one of mutual agreement, the article doesn’t acknowledge that Booth was actually born in 1898, which advances her stated age of forty-six fully forward nine years to her true age of fifty-five.
Born Thelma Booth Ford (who names themselves Shirley, I wonder?), she was forced to drop the Ford, when her father, a withholding and manipulative man, forbade her to go on the stage, believing the acting profession beneath the dignity of the Ford name. After her father and mother divorced when Shirley was a teenager, she took the opportunity to divorce her father herself and, by all reports, never spoke to him again.
A high school drop out, she trained as an actress by doing. She worked tirelessly in stock for years before making her Broadway debut in Hell’s Bells, a melodrama by Barry Conners who specialized in the genre. She was cast as the ingénue opposite a young juvenile named Humphrey Bogart, and from that time on she never stopped. She was wildly popular on radio, as she had a very musical voice that was rich in character. She was a cast member of one of the most famous radio shows of the day, Duffy’s Tavern, heard by millions all over the country each week.
There really was nothing she couldn’t do. I was even fond of the very last thing she ever did in front of a camera, which was a sitcom that only lasted a few weeks based on a British series which had a greater success. In A Touch of Grace, Booth played a recent widow who wasn’t finished with life yet, by gosh! As tired as that premise was, I remember watching as a teenager and being very taken with her. I had never been a fan of her long- running series Hazel, where she played a domestic housekeeper to a dim-witted family that basically couldn’t do anything without her coming to their rescue every week. Based on illustrator Ted Key’s single-panel cartoon, which ran in thousands of daily newspapers, Hazel was a big hit that ran five seasons, mainly due to Booth’s inordinate charm. Hopefully it made her a bundle of dough. I never really liked all those white bread shows like The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. The Munsters and The Addams Family were more my speed, as they reminded me of my own family (and I only wish I was kidding).
Since she worked so much on stage, radio and television, it’s hard to believe that Booth only made four films in her lifetime. Sheba was her very first one, and whether forty-six or fifty-five, that’s something. Even if she didn’t like doing them, the ones she left us show off what was so special about her talents. She is charm personified in Joseph Anthony’s film version of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker (the genesis for the musical Hello, Dolly!). As Dolly Gallagher Levi, Booth is perfection. Speaking into the camera for a good deal of the film (not an easy thing to pull off) you half-expect her to break into song (that musical speaking voice again), especially when some of the lines in the film are the direct lead-ins to so many of the famous songs in Hello, Dolly!: “I put my hand in here … “It takes a woman …” Watch the film. See for yourself how many lines Jerry Herman purloined from Wilder to write the lyrics.
Booth’s final years were spent in Chatham, Massachusetts as a neighbor to another legendary actress of the stage, Julie Harris, living twenty years beyond her retirement until the age of ninety-four (all the obits used 1898 as her birthdate). In her New York Times obituary, it stated that “Miss Booth was celebrated for never giving a bad performance.” It’s not the sort of thing one has engraved on a tombstone, but it’s possible that for Shirley Booth, this might have been the perfect encapsulation of her life as an actress.
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